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Lithuania prepares to mark its 1,000th birthday

The Baltic nation of Lithuania is bracing for a nationwide party as it prepares to mark its symbolic 1,000th birthday and give itself some respite from a daily fare of economic crisis headlines.

world Updated: Jul 04, 2009 11:59 IST

The Baltic nation of Lithuania is bracing for a nationwide party as it prepares to mark its symbolic 1,000th birthday and give itself some respite from a daily fare of economic crisis headlines.

Lithuania's woes -- the economy is expected to shrink around 18 per cent this year -- have cast a shadow over its capital Vilnius' year-long status as a European Capital of Culture.

That has left the country of 3.4 million people determined to put on a show on Monday, when it marks its national day with a combination street partying and official ceremonies with guests such as the monarchs of Denmark, Norway and Sweden plus the presidents of neighbouring republics.

Lithuania declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1990. Like many ex-communist states, however, it has been keen to underline that it is no newcomer on the map of Europe.

Its national day, for example, commemorates the 1253 coronation of its first king, Mindaugas. The reconstructed palace of Lithuania's monarchs will be inaugurated as part of festivities that also include a performance by a choir of 11,000.

"Because our country's so small, I think this event is very important. All the more so, because Lithuania is again an independent state," said Ernesta Darguziene, head of a folk ensemble.

Adding extra flavour to the celebrations is the 1,000th anniversary of the first attested mention of Lithuania, in the Annals of Quedlinburg, an 11th century chronicle named after a German monastery.

A 1009 entry in the now-lost annals -- whose content survived in a 16th century copy -- recounts the death of a Christian missionary, Saint Bruno.

The chronicler said he was killed by a blow to the head during a pagan attack in "confinio Rusciae et Lituae" -- the borderlands of Russia and Lithuania.

"Just as Christopher Columbus discovered America, so Saint Bruno discovered Lithuania," said Lithuanian historian Alfredas Bumbliauskas.

Saint Bruno's demise otherwise failed to put Lithuania on the map, but religion was to pull it into the spotlight centuries later. Lithuania only formally converted to Christianity at the end of the 1300s, making it Europe's last formally pagan nation.

The switch came after the Vatican authorised a crusade and colonisation drive in the Baltic by the German-rooted Teutonic knights, but also because Lithuanian ruler Jogaila converted when he was offered the throne of neighbouring Poland in 1386.

That launched a golden age.

In 1410, Jogaila and Lithuanian leader Vytautas crushed the Teutonic knights at the Battle of Grunwald. In 1569 their successors created a Polish-Lithuanian federation which wielded power from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

But amid war and political intrigue the joint state was wiped off the map in 1795 by imperial Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Until World War I, Lithuania was just a province of the Russian empire, which sought to crush nationalism and even banned the Lithuanian alphabet.

It declared independence in 1918 after the empire collapsed into revolution. Freedom was short-lived. The Soviet Union invaded in 1940, Nazi Germany in 1941, and the Soviets returned in 1944.

Democracy campaigners launched an independence drive in the 1980s that eventually led to the March 1990 breakaway.

Moscow refused to give in. An attack by security forces on protestors in Vilnius in January 1991 left 13 dead, and the Soviets continued beatings and shootings for months.

Lithuania finally won recognition from Moscow after the failed coup by hardliners in the Soviet capital in August 1991. In 2004, its pro-Western drive culminated with admission to the European Union and NATO.

"Today, thanks to our membership of the EU and NATO, we have more than 30 allies. We've never had so many. We're starting off our second millennium better than ever," said Bumbliauskas.